Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Back Catalogue: New Zealand Storm-petrel Rediscovery

My Part in the Rediscovery of the New Zealand Storm-petrel by Bob Flood

New Zealand Storm-petrel, Hauraki Gulf, NZL, 04/02/08 (Brent Stephenson)

It was early November 2003. Bryan Thomas and I made a toast to Australasian seabirds as our Jumbo revved its engines and accelerated down the runway at London Heathrow airport. We lifted into the air, at which point Bryan said, “You never know, we might see that New Zealand Storm-petrel.”

I was full of thoughts about the feast of albatrosses, Pterodromas, Procellarias, shearwaters, prions, and storm-petrels on the hit list for our Australia and New Zealand pelagic extravaganza, though I remember thinking, “Eh, Bryan must have had one too many.”

The story was that some guy Brent Stephenson and his pal Sav Saville of Wrybill Tours ran a pelagic trip earlier in the year from Whitianga on the Coromandel PeninsulaNorth IslandNew Zealand, and took a record shot of a storm-petrel. It had been suggested that it might be the New Zealand Storm-petrel. There were many opinions and few really thought that it could be the New Zealand Storm-petrel. I reckoned we had more chance of winning the lottery than finding this needle in the haystack. And in any case, New Zealand Storm-petrel was extinct, right?!

For three weeks we zigzagged over Australia and New Zealand. Our trip was nearing its end. We had a great day out into the Hauraki Gulf piggy-backing the charter of Chris Collinson and Tony Marr on the 16th November. The skipper of MV Assassin Brett Rathe agreed to take Bryan and I back into the Gulf next day to drift and chum for White-faced Storm-petrels. We requested an assortment of chum ingredients and Brett duly obliged. (Brett is a star and THE charter to take into the Gulf for seabirding; email boatnfish@xtra.co.nz and say I recommended you.)

We left harbour at 07.30 and steamed to two kilometres north of Little Barrier Island, arriving at about 09.00 and started drifting and chumming. We waited with anticipation. After 20 minutes a storm-petrel arrived from down-wind, as we expected, but, it was a medium sized black-and-white storm-petrel, which we did not expect. Our instant reaction was that it must be a Black-bellied Storm-petrel, but we had minimal experience at that time of Fregetta storm-petrels.

It appeared big-headed and had a very obvious toe projection. It was brownish-black with a white ‘rump patch’, folding over to the underside and merging with a white belly. It had large white underwing-covert panels. We saw dark markings on the belly, but they were difficult to place given the viewing conditions (choppy). This bird certainly did not fit White-bellied Storm-petrel given dark on the belly and a long toe projection (amongst other things).

The storm-petrel fed at about 30 metres off the boat whilst continuing on to the oily slick forming up-wind and directly into the sunlight, where it was impossible to study. Over the following hour-and-a-half more of these black-and-white storm-petrels arrived from down-wind, heading straight for the slick. I videod a number of them as they approached.

Brett chopped-up pilchards and threw them down-wind creating a food source away from the sunlight that encouraged the storm-petrels to feed, albeit for short periods, in improved light for Bryan’s photography. But they mainly remained on the slick where 10 were counted at one time. Perhaps 20 (or more) of these black-and-white storm-petrels visited the slick. This was incredible because we had been told that black-and-white storm-petrels were rare in the Gulf. Clearly, something was not right.

We then changed location and drifted from 13.00-16.00 about two kilometres off Needles Point at the north end of Great Barrier Island. We saw many White-faced (awesome), but none of the black-and-white storm-petrels.
After a fantastic day watching storm-petrels and many other seabirds, we decided to head home and in the end were relieved to get ashore after a lumpy day out and a bumpy steam back to Sandspit.

We returned to our Shanty in the middle of nowhere. It was at a beautiful location on the waterside. We were cut-off from the outside world with no form of communication.

Bryan downloaded his digital images, whilst I read up on storm-petrels trying to get to grips with the black-and-white storm-petrels that we had seen. Several times Bryan called to me from another room asking why the storm-petrels were streaked on the belly and lacked a central black stripe. I eventually went to look at the images, bearing in mind that field guides warn that the black central stripe is a variable feature of Black-bellied and can be absent.

I was stunned by the images on his laptop screen. A pattern emerged from the underside shots of a number of different individuals. The breast-band was not clear-cut, but there were black-brown ‘bleeding’ projections onto a white belly. The white flanks and belly were streaked black-brown to varying degrees and, especially obvious on more heavily streaked birds, formed lines from the edges of the breast to the undertail coverts (via the thighs). The central belly was unmarked white on all of them. This was totally different from anything we expected for Black-bellied. And the wing structure did not look as we expected. And the toe projection was longer than we expected. And …

A realisation began to dawn and we became aware that these must be New Zealand Storm-petrels. It was hard to believe, but it seemed that Bryan’s quip on take-off had turned into reality. Our conversation bounced back and forward. Surely not? But they must be. But they can’t be! But they are! Oh my god, they are New Zealand Storm-petrels! Are we certain?

It was surreal.

We were sat on dynamite with no way of communicating with the outside world.

As far as we could remember, our birds showed the same characteristics described by Brent Stephenson and Sav Saville. Until their sighting the New Zealand Storm-petrel was presumed extinct and known only from three skins collected in the 1800s. Dare we conclude that we had seen at least 10 and probably around 20 of them? Hold on, we thought, we had better get to read Brent and Sav’s Birding World article again and soon.

The next day we had dinner at Te Kaura Lodge where Kiwi Wildlife Tours was based and Chris Gaskin kindly downloaded a web version of the article on the New Zealand Storm-petrel. The front-page photograph of Brent and Sav’s storm-petrel looked just like our ones. The photographs of the three museum skins collected in the 1800s reflected the pattern emerging on the underside images of our storm-petrels. There was only one reasonable conclusion. Gulp. It had to be that the New Zealand Storm-petrel was not extinct!

Brent's photograph from Birding World article

Two of the original three skins collected in 1800s 

We spilled the beans to Chris and to Karen Baird. The response was muted, perhaps being one of shock?

Then we hastily departed for Sydney with a flight early next morning. As soon as we arrived in Oz we emailed Brent and Sav. Their response was excited and colourful to say the least. We had numerous such exchanges by email over the next few weeks.

This was and remains the most exciting thing ever to happen to me in pelagic birding.

Brent organised a follow up trip in January 2004 with TV cameras and several well-known Australasian seabirders on board. We waited by the phone/computer for news. It was a painful wait. Then came the call. The New Zealand Storm-petrels had performed very well.

What a relief, since there were doubters, and it had even been suggested by a well known Kiwi that Bryan and I had concocted the whole story and made up photos by putting Wilson’s photos through Adobe Photoshop.

So, Bryan and I were the first people to discover and to positively identify a population of New Zealand Storm-petrels. What a fantastic thing to happen to two fanatical seabirders!

Since those momentous months, Brent has become a good friend of mine. We keep in regular touch by email. He came to stay with me in Scilly and joined our Birder Special pelagic trips. Next month, Brent and I are meeting up in Madeira for a number of Zino’s pelagic trips. More on that in late May…

And what next? Well, in the words of my mate Bryan Thomas, “You never know!”

Flood, R.L. 2003. The New Zealand storm petrel is not extinct. Birding World 16: 479-483.
Flood, R.L., Saville, S., Southey, I., Stephenson, B.M., & Thomas, B. 2004. Digital resurrection of the New Zealand Storm-petrel. Southern Bird 17: 6.
Saville, S., Stephenson, B., & Southey, I. 2003. A possible sighting of an ‘extinct’ bird – the New Zealand Storm-petrel. Birding World 16: 173-75.
Stephenson, B.M., Flood, R.L., Thomas, B., and Saville, S. Rediscovery of the New Zealand Storm-petrel (Pealeornis maoriana Matthews 1932): two sightings that revised our knowledge of storm-petrels. Notornis 55: 77-83.